The Face of God

God  no one has seen ever yet; [the] only-begotten God the [one] being in the bosom of the Father he has made [him] known.– That is a direct word to word english translation of the greek text of John 1:18, which is helpful for people like myself, who do not read Greek.

The writer of John’s gospel calls the reader to believe in him- what is the main substance of that belief? It is to entrust oneself to the claim that Jesus is who he says he is.  To be sure, he claimed to be God’s Anointed One- the Messiah, but few Jews of his time expected the Messiah anything other than a mere human being.

Most Christians of the modern era fail to gasp and the audacity of this claim, or to grasp how much ink and blood was spilled over it- we take it for granted as a point of doctrine.  But the functional impact of this claim is that God is knowable in the most intimate way to humankind through his darling Son. What a comfort to know that the claims of Christ reflect the authority of God, his words are God’s very thoughts, feelings, and intentions, his pronouncement of forgiveness-the seal of God’s own forgiveness, the tears of Christ – God’s own anguish, the sympathy of Christ God’s own tenderness, the anger of Christ-God’s own indignation, the promise of Christ- God’s own guarantee, the blood of Christ-God’s own purification for sin, the resurrection of Christ- God’s own victory over death, breath of Christ, God’s own Spirit.

Now to set the record straight concerning William Barclay. It is said that he has suspicions about the Trinity.  But here is a direct quote from his Daily Study Bible and I think it is clear at this time anyway, that he remains true to the text of John.

(i) Jesus is unique. The Greek word is monogenes (Greek #3439), which the King James Version translates only-begotten. It is true that that is what monogenes (Greek #3439) literally means; but long before this it had lost its purely physical sense, and had come to have two special meanings. It had come to mean unique and specially beloved. Obviously an only son has a unique place and a unique love in his father’s heart. So this word came to express uniqueness more than anything else. It is the conviction of the New Testament that there is no one like Jesus. He alone can bring God to men and bring men to God.

(ii) Jesus is God. Here we have the very same form of expression as we had in the first verse of the chapter. This does not mean that Jesus is identical with God; it does mean that in mind and character and being he is one with God. In this case it might be better if we thought of it as meaning that Jesus is divine. To see him is to see what God is.

[My comment: Keep in mind that in most places, when John uses the word God, he refers to the Father.  Athanasian Trinitarianism holds that the Son is not identical with the Father, but he is one with the Father in being.]

(iii) Jesus is in the bosom of the Father. To be in the bosom of someone is the Hebrew phrase which expresses the deepest intimacy possible in human life. It is used of mother and child; it is used of husband and wife; a man speaks of the wife of his bosom (Numbers 11:12; Deuteronomy 13:6); it is used of two friends who are in complete communion with one another. When John uses this phrase about Jesus, he means that between Jesus and God there is complete and uninterrupted intimacy. It is because Jesus is so intimate with God, that he is one with God and can reveal him to men.

In Jesus Christ the distant, unknowable, invisible, unreachable God has come to men; and God can never be a stranger to us again.

“No one has ever seen God; the only God,e who is at the Father’s side,f he has made him known.”  -ESV

The Life that is the Light of all Mankind

Dear Friends,

I have been thinking about John 1:9 for several days.  

Whenever I consider religious claims from the point of view of an outsider, I hear their claims as one listens to the local weather report.   E.g. “It’s cold with a 60% chance of precipitation. “The forecast may be true but everyone rightly assumes that the prediction applies only to the local region. One never thinks of a local report as applicable to a whole continent. What’s true in the Buddhist system of thought may not be true in the Muslim world view. 

Here in John 1:9, we have an unashamedly bold and inclusive statement: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”.  What does that claim assert? 

1) That there is a true light. Given the Hebrew background, this should be interpreted as the knowledge of the Way of the LORD, his Torah.  For the Jews say that the Torah is the light of the world and by it a person may find illumination to walk the path of life without stumbling – to direct a person in time of doubt and difficulty and a comfort in time of fear and distress–the Way of Righteousness. (Psa 119:105)  People of every age assume they already have the light, that they inherently know the difference between right and wrong,  good and evil, the way of conflict and the way of peace. But history reveals how great is the darkness that we take for light.  Have we not been the most certain of ourselves at those very times when we were in the greatest error? We think of the great certainty with which slaveowners exploited slaves, or in which previous generations went to war to ‘defend’ their country, or persecuted those of another ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation-all of which appear so shameful in hindsight.  What scripture says is that our cultures are normally in a state of darkness and we need the light as we need nothing else.  When the light is finally followed, it leads to goodness and peace. 

 2) There exists a light that is universal to all people… Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist … there is a way of righteousness that calls to every human being in every time and place. 

Political correctness now insists on pluralism-that what is true for me need not be true for you.  Yet it also insists on being inclusive; that no group of people should be cut off from privileges that another group enjoys. 

Well it can’t go both ways-  To include everyone in privilege is to include everyone in responsibility. John’s claim is just that.  The Logos is that life that is the light of all mankind, and to that light every man and woman is called to respond. I have heard Jews, Muslims, and Hindus all tell of how Christ  is the fulfillment of their greatest aspirations to purity, truth and the knowledge of God. When a Christian says that Jesus is my God,  he ought not be saying that he has exclusive claim on God, but rather that God has an exclusive claim on him

3) That light was coming into the world as a person.  Philosophers love to speak of ideas.  Hebrews will speak of light as the metaphor for Truth, revelation, and salvation. Because the light became a human, we know that revelation, Truth, and salvation are not abstract ideas.   His life and conversation  reveal the anguish and affection of that One for whom the Old Testament prophets spoke.  His love of his disciples and acceptance of outcasts are God’s love enacted.   His living and dying and rising again are the salvation of the world. 

Psa 36:9 says “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”  

My friends, as you grow and see the larger world, and shed the cultural enclave of our homes and church community , look for the Light that is still as fresh and as transformative as ever. 

Grace and Peace, 


What ‘The Word’ Meant to the Hebrews

The Hebrew word for ‘word’ is transliterated, dabar. Dabar is word-act.  It is the thing, the matter, the issue.

Men’s solemn words such as promises and blessings cannot be retracted. We remember the story of Jacob’s deception.  Pretending to be his brother Esau, he deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Once spoken, the word of blessing could not be retracted, despite the pleading of Esau.  Gen 27:37,38

In the Jewish mind, there is a 1:1 correlation between word and the reality to which it refers. The Hebrew bible begins with the Holy One calling light into existence.  Isaiah understands the transforming power of the divine word…

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,and do not return to it without watering the earth  and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.       Isa 55:10,11

Jeremiah asks rhetorically,  Is not my word like fire, and says the LORD, like a hammer which breaks the rocks in pieces?  Jer 23:29

Barclay raises another important development into the understanding of the word of God.  Hebrew was no longer  spoken at the time of Jesus.  Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic.  The translators of the Aramaic scriptures, the Targams, were fascinated with the transcendence of God.  Seeking to avoid the directness of  anthropomorphisms, they changed texts such as Deut 33:27, which speaks of God’s everlasting arms, to read,  “The eternal God is thy refuge, and by his word the world was created.”  God’s word is now as stand-in, for God’s direct activity.  The phrase, word of God is found at least 320 times in the Jonathan Targum. This periphrasis for the name of God became a widely used Jewish expression.

Finally, Jewish wisdom literature personified wisdom. In Proverbs 8, she is spoken of as the chief architect, the master craftsman joyfully working with the God as he fashions the world, and one who delighting in and seeking the welfare of the children of men.

Barclay summarizes:  “So when John was searching for a way in which he could commend Christianity he found in his own faith and in the record of his own people the idea of the word, the ordinary word which is in itself not merely a sound, but a dynamic thing, the word of God by which God created the world, the word of the Targums which expressed the very idea of the action of God, the wisdom of the Wisdom Literature which was the eternal creative and illuminating power of God. So John said: “If you wish to see that word of God, if you wish to see the creative power of God, if you wish to see that word which brought the world into existence and which gives light and life to every man, look at Jesus Christ. In him the word of God came among you.””

What ‘The Word’ Meant to Greeks

Barclay tells us that John’s gospel was written in Ephesus around A.D. 100 and addressed to Hellenistic audience.  How would he announce the coming of Messiah and translate his identity and mission into the thought world of his Greek readers?  660 years before John, an Ephesian philosopher named Heraclitus gave us the famous image of flux – that one can’t step into the same river twice,  since the river will have changed in the mean time. (Yes Disney’s Pochohantas studied philosophy too.  Haven’t you have experienced that sense of anticipation as you came home to reconnect with your friends, only to realize with some sadness perhaps, that each one has moved on with life and warm memories of happy times cannot be relived.)

Was all of life in a chaotic state of flux in which one can have no root?  Or was there something that gave continuity to the changing elements of the universe? Hereclitis said that the something was the Logos, the principle of order that underlies the physical universe.  More than that, it is the pattern that guides the unfolding of world events.  The logos is the purpose, plan, and design controlling nature and history.  “The Logos was nothing less than the mind of God controlling the world and every man in it. ”  The idea was a hit with the Stoics.  The logos must be the principle that guides the stars in their path in the sky, the tides in their ebb and flow, and the pattern of the seasons.

But Barclay reminds us of yet another seminal thinker. Philo was the famous philosopher of Alexandria who sought to harmonize the wisdom of the Jews and the Greeks. Steeped in the knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures and the greatness of Greek thought, Philo knew and loved the Logos, the Word, the reason of God. It was the tiller by which God piloted the universe, the trademark with which the creation is stamped.  The human mind was imprinted with the Logos, giving us the faculty of reason.  It was the intermediary between the world and its Maker, “the priest who set the soul before God.”

“So John came to the Greeks and said: For centuries you have been thinking and writing and dreaming about the Logos (Greek #3056), the power which made the world, the power which keeps the order of the world, the power by which men think and reason and know, the power by which men come into contact with God. Jesus is that Logos come down to earth.” “The word,” said John, “became flesh.” We could put it another way–“The Mind of God became a person.”


The Light Shines in the Darkness

The following is a condensed version of Barclay’s Daily Study Bible 

1:9 He was the real light, who, in his coming into the world, gives light to every man.

(i)  He dispelled the shadows of doubt.  One of the Greeks said, “It is difficult to find out about God, and when you have found out about him it is impossible to tell anyone else about him.”  In the coming of Jesus,  people saw God in full display – the “radiance of his glory, the exact representation of his being. ”  Heb 1:3

(ii) He dispelled the shadows of despair.  Seneca said that people are aware of their helplessness.  “They hate their sins but cannot leave them.” Unable to improve ourselves or better our world, we live in the pessimism of despair. Jesus came with more than knowledge- he embodies the power to transform.  The darkness of pessimism and despair was gone for ever.

(iii) His coming diespelled the darkness of death. “The ancient world feared death. At the best, death was annihilation and the soul of man shuddered at the thought. At the worst, it was torture by whatever gods there be and the soul of man was afraid. But Jesus by his coming, by his life, his death, his Resurrection showed that death was only the way to a larger life.”

Barclay writes, ” The ancient world was exclusive. The Jew hated the Gentile and held that Gentiles were created for no other purpose than to be fuel for the fires of hell.”  [My comment: now to be sure Gentiles, especially Christian Gentiles have reciprocated by enacting their hostility against Jews for millennia afterward.] Isaiah saw that Israel’s destiny was to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6Isaiah 49:6) but that was a destiny which Israel had always definitely refused. The Greek world never dreamed that knowledge was for every man. The Roman world looked down on the barbarians, the lesser breeds without the law. But Jesus came to be a light to every man. Only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a heart big enough to hold all the world.”